So you want to be a writer

As of this writing, Google generates over 81 million suggestions just for this phrase alone. I should take this as an inspiring sign that so many people want to write, or that so many people want to know how to write. Or, if I was so inclined, I could take this as a depressing sign that so many people have written about this topic already.

But, a happy person by nature, I’m not so inclined. Here’s a collection of links that have been on my mind lately when it comes to writing and the writing life. Since I’ve gone back to teaching last month, and started one daughter in kindergarten, I need to get back into a regular routine of creative writing, somehow. To clear my mind (and my bookmarks menu), I decided to start here.

In the literature/music class I’m teaching this semester, we’ve been talking about making mixes of songs. Here’s my mix of links and quotations that are running through my head, called “So you want to be a writer.” (Liner notes included: one of my favorite genres of writing, one that my students tell me is being lost with the IPod/MP3 playlist.)

Track 1: Dear Sugar, “Write Like A Motherf*cker” (Sorry, Mom.)
Dear Sugar (an advice columnist at The Rumpus) usually manages to make me cry, or gasp, or laugh, or all three. “I know it’s hard to write, darling. But it’s harder not to.” This column is the starting gun for the album.

Track 2: Voices of Our Nation, Summer Writing Workshop for Writers of Color
Application guidelines for the VONA workshop. I’d never heard of this workshop before, but it sounds like a wonderful experience, set in one of my favorite cities in the world. It looks like something I could apply for, eventually: an abbreviated, near-private version of an MFA, in a supportive community.

Track 3: Michelle Hoover, “So You Want To Be A Writer?”
Michelle Hoover’s “so you want to be a writer” roundup of links and advice, recommended via Twitter by Poets and Writers magazine. Some useful, practical advice for writers here and now.

Track 4: Renee Shea, “The Taste of Memory: A Profile of Monique Truong”
Continuing the Poets and Writers track, Renee Shea’s recent profile is a wonderful read. One interesting piece here is not only Truong’s impressive track record of awards, but also her methodical, disciplined approach to applying for awards in the first place. “As writers we are socialized into a state of perpetual gratefulness-to receive a grant, a publishing contract, a book tour- as if we didn’t earn anything with our labor and talents. Lawyers don’t think that way. They know that they have a valuable skill and expect valuable compensation for it. I love my fellow writers, but I wish that they would think and behave –just in this instance-more like lawyers.”

Track 5: Alexander Chee, “Getting Your Name Out There”
Alexander Chee’s series on author blogging. Chee is a gracious and generous Twitterquaintance, and I actually began to read his writing there. (And I just checked out his first novel from the library.) But his blog, Koreanish, contains helpful, thoughtful posts on the writing life.

Track 6: Junot Díaz, “How I Became A Writer
I started reading about this story from Chee’s blog, but went to read the full story from O Magazine. I am simultaneously inspired and terrified by the heartbreak behind the writing of Diaz’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. One of my favorite novels, of all time—but, like so many amazing things in this life, it did not come for free.

Track 7: Jennifer Kahn, “The Art of the Perfect Pitch”
And speaking of free (and the need for money), here is some practical freelance writing advice from UC Berkeley School of Journalism professor Jennifer Kahn about how to sell a potential story to an editor.

Track 8: Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

I don’t have a link, but a quotation instead. I’ve been mulling over the question of audience for the book I’m writing, ever since early last week.
“If something inside you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Don’t worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable; worry about being absent or fraudulent. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this.”

Track 9: J.K. Rowling, “The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination.”
J.K. Rowling’s 2008 commencement address at Harvard, her version of the famous Yoda mantra: “Do or do not do. There is no try.” Like Lamott’s advice above, some instructions on writing and life.

“And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life. You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

Now, contemplate death

A few years ago I asked a group of students, bless their hearts, to write their own obituaries.

Now, of course there was a reason. It was a course which introduced students to the English major, and I thought that writing their own obituaries would help them to articulate their life goals, even if in a surprising fashion. Or rather, I hoped that the surprise of the assignment would propel them to unexpected insights, to help them answer that eternal question: “What are you going to do with an English major?”

And yes, it was a morbid assignment; I’m not sure that it worked for everyone.  Confessing further, it might not have been the best idea to ask them to write it on, um, the first day of class. In class. Oh, my. “Welcome to the class: now, contemplate death.”

(Then again, many great works of literature have said the same thing, if much more poetically. Maybe not on the first page, however.)

Nevertheless, I didn’t expect that my own response to the assignment would startle me.

While my students wrote, I wrote quickly too, scribbling notes and sentences down the page of my teaching journal. I envisioned what I would do when I retired from teaching, and I envisioned what others would say. I even found myself picturing what my daughters would say, and this sentence emerged from my fictionally-grown-up eldest daughter:

“She really loved all the ways that the written word could bring people together.”

Today I’ve been thinking about what this sentence means. This morning, my husband said that in itself, it’s a blog post, or a longer essay. And one of my failings as a writer is that I can be too elliptical: too often, readers will have to ask me to explain further about what a statement means, or to give an example. I discovered a few years ago that I’m an under-writer, rather than an over-writer. I suspect this is why I’m more of a poet than a novelist. I expect very little to say a great deal.

Exhibit A: my short paragraphs.

Exhibit B: “Say more,” urged one of my early graduate school professors. Still terrified of speaking in class, I stumbled when so pressed. I said something! Now you want me to say more?

And of course, I know there are exceptions to my rule: there are many wonderful novelists whose prose conveys a great deal with very little. But what does this sentence from my own fictional obituary mean? I’ve got just over half an hour left of power on my computer, so I’ll use that time pressure (raging against the dying of the long-overdue Northwest sunlight) to see where it takes me. All right:

• I love how intimately the written word can bring two individuals together. In one of my favorite moments from the film Before Sunrise, Julie Delpy’s character says something like, “If there was a God, it wouldn’t be in you and it wouldn’t be in me. Just in the space in between.” I feel that way about writing: at its very best, the space between writer and reader holds the potential for the divine: for the transcendent. I can travel far from my self, see unexpected reflections of myself—and return, forever changed.

• I also love how the written word can bring large groups of people together. I love how having a common buy ventolin online no prescription reading (if not a common reading experience) can open spaces for conversation. A few summers ago, I led a book group discussion for faculty and staff members on my campus. It was a relatively rare and relatively frank discussion about issues of race and privilege, particularly among faculty and staff. There are far more people of color on staff than there are among the faculty. While I know a common reading did not level the playing field, I loved how so many moments in the reading provided so many resonant spaces for people to speak.

• I love how the written word makes me imagine and makes me empathize, even and perhaps especially when it costs me something to do so. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room.

• And—how do I say this without irony? I’ll risk it—I love how the written word makes my light shine. When I am passionate about a book, or a story, or a play, I want you to read it, and I want to talk about it with you and I want this experience to texturize the connection that we have with each other. Through sheer enthusiasm, I can bully you into reading whatever I’ve loved lately, or for a long time. (Don’t be afraid. I do take your preferences into account before I recommend anything.) Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Li-Young Lee’s first chapbook, Rose, the first and last stories in Nam Le’s collection The Boat, Haruki Murakami’s Dance Dance Dance, Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. Just to start. Few things make me as happy as talking about a book that I love.

I am taking some time this summer to rethink what I’ll do professionally in a couple of years. So far, all I know is that I want my life to reflect that obituary sentence: “She really loved all the ways that the written word could bring people together.” I want it to be a sentence that could easily describe me, and not just by someone who knows me really well.

I’ve wandered a bit this week, trying to depressurize from a difficult year (see post below: 2-hour nap!). I reached some solid ground in the stacks of my public library, and, once I recognized it, laughed at myself. Oh, right: the written word. As I think and rethink, I’m calling on the wisdom of Baby Suggs from Toni Morrison’s epic novel Beloved: “She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.”

If I don’t know what I’ll be doing in a couple of years just yet, I’ve got a compass direction.

P.S. For Monday’s post, blogger Shauna James Ahern (aka Gluten-Free Girl) has invited everyone to write about the first thing you cooked, and how it made you feel. She’ll be collecting responses, so you could send a message to glutenfreegirl at gmail dot com., or post a link in your comments on Monday. (Though the invitation was on Twitter, I don’t think she’ll mind if it’s over 140 characters or not.) I’ll be participating. I hope you will, too.

Summer skies

"Summer Sky," Mara Morea

I’ve finished my faculty seminar on Suzan-Lori Parks, and while it was a wonderful experience, I am so happy it’s over. Summer’s here!

For the teacher, summer’s often the happy ending to the work year, a time to relax, release, and renew. These last few summers have been packed with so much: two summers of adjusting to the births of my daughters (now almost-5 and 2 years old, babies born in late June and late May, respectively); one summer of moving to our current house; one summer of preparing for a large review. Now that I think of it, this is the first summer that I’ve had in five years where I don’t have a large project planned for myself, personal or professional, which is exciting and a little scary.  Oh, right, there’s this blog.

I expect that I’ll be posting more regularly with the conclusion of the seminar. I still don’t have more MFA structure in mind just yet, but the commitment to more regular posts should help. I’m looking forward to that structure in itself, along with the exhilaration and possibility that summer always brings me. There must be something about the clarity, the openness, and the light of the summer sky.

  • Summer means summer reading, summer fruit: I can’t decide which one I like better. Knowing how much I love both, that says a lot.
  • Summer means beach picnics, bubble-blowing parties in the backyard, picking our cherry tomatoes and basil for dinner panzanella, the metallic humming and clicking of the canner heating on the stove, the vibrant colors and communities of farmer’s ventolin inhaler to buy online markets. (I live within five miles of three farmer’s markets and sometimes can’t believe my luck. Hmmm: I grew up next to a farmer’s market, the famous Denio’s Market in Roseville, California. I sense a post coming.)
  • Summer means time to browse through used bookstores and thrift stores. In both places, it’s all about the pleasure of the unexpected find, the willingness and imagination to give something old a new life. (yet another post?)
  • And this summer, I’m looking forward to learning how to sew: my mom’s just bought me my first sewing machine.
  • Summer means wonderfully long to-do lists with an equally long amount of compassion if I don’t check off every item on the list.

To reflect a bit on this first month of the blog, I have loved rethinking and reseeing the world as a writer. I’ve been excited to think about upcoming assignments for this space. (Other genre possibilities: book review, opinion piece, collage essay.) Being in the seminar for the past two and a half weeks, I’ve remembered how much I love being a student. While I need some time to relax and release, at the same time I can’t wait to carry that energy into the summer.

Summer: where the sunset clouds are Maxfield-Parrish-pink against the smoky blue sky. Where my girls are twirling in the grass and the sunshine, their skirts lifting lightly.

A small postscript: just found out that my friend R tried the adobo recipe and her kids liked it! I’m thrilled. Anyone else tried it? I’d love to know if the recipe itself needs tweaking, for those who love or need specific directions.

Do I dare?

When I teach American literature, I always try to teach T.S. Eliot’s famous dramatic monologue, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” As a form of self-introduction on Prufrock Day, I ask my students to quote a set of lines that best describes them. Some of the greatest hits as we go around the room:

“I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”

“I grow old…I grow old…/I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”

“I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.” (usually a favorite in the Pacific Northwest, many of the sleep-deprived heads nodding in agreement)

“Prufrock” is one of those quintessential English-major poems, one that my college friends and I used to quote to each other endlessly. As an undergraduate at Berkeley, I studied Modernist Poetry with the now-deceased British poet Thom Gunn. Ah, Thom Gunn. He delivered eloquent, beautiful lectures from behind the lab counter in 1 LeConte Hall. Once in a while, he would step away from the counter and slouch genially against the blackboard, usually wearing faded black jeans and a worn black leather jacket.

(I still remember my one shining moment of in-class participation, perhaps in all my 4.5 years at Berkeley: “Do you mean ‘wanting’ as in desiring, and ‘wanting’ as in lacking?” “Exactly,” he nodded. “I couldn’t have put it better myself.” My friend M and I practically squealed. Maybe we high-fived under our desks. We thought he was beyond cool.)

Anyway, in Modernist Poetry, Thom Gunn read Eliot’s poem out loud. And we swooned, all hundred thirty-something of us, in that lecture hall. We adored  Prufrock’s melancholy,  his world-weary angst, even (perhaps especially) his stunningly adolescent self-absorption and insecurities. We could relate to his passionate love affair—not with the “you” of the first line, but with indecision itself. We didn’t know what we were going to do with our lives, much less our majors in English! order ventolin inhaler online Prufrock captivated us—no, Prufrock got us. Prufrock was us.

But on our Prufrock Day, Thom Gunn’s fierce gaze pierced the room’s collective marshmallow adoration: “If you don’t think that this poem is funny,” he declared, “you don’t get this poem.”

I’ll always remember that moment, because I have used it over and over to teach the poem. It makes for great conversation: many of my students protest. Understandably, they feel sorry for Prufrock, even when I point out that only Prufrock, lovable Prufrock, could write a “love song” that begins as a pastoral ballad: “Let us go then, you and I” and just after, invite the object of his love to an evening “like a patient etherized upon a table.” (Really? What kind of evening is that? What kind of woman responds to this as a pickup line?) But remembering my own college marshmallow love, vaster than empires, we work through the poem together.

I am thinking about Prufrock today because I have been thinking about my last post. “In a minute there is time,” Prufrock says, “[for] decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.” What would I say to this creative writing teacher now? Why didn’t I become a professional writer?

I could answer with a number of reasons, including the undervaluing of creativity in American society, especially creativity as a form of intellectual activity; our lack of support and infrastructure for artists; the tunnel vision of graduate programs which insist that the tenure-track job at a research university is the only prize worth having.

To be clear, I don’t regret getting my doctorate, and I am still proud that I’m the first PhD in my Japanese American/Filipina American family.

But looking at my path in a certain Prufrockian light, I return to these lines:
“I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.”